Coastkeeper forum looks at risk of oil spill in San Diego

By Joe Tash


San Diego County may not be home to offshore oil drilling platforms, but it still faces a risk of oil spills from military and tanker ships, tanker-trucks and an oil pipeline from Los Angeles, said experts at a forum held in Kearny Mesa last week.

The forum on the potential for oil spills in the region was organized by San Diego Coastkeeper at a time when the public's attention has been focused for much of the summer on the response to a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico caused by an explosion on a drilling rig. The Aug. 26 forum attracted more than 80 people.

"For the most part, the risks in San Diego are not near what you have in Los Angeles," said Steve Weisberg, a scientist and executive director of the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project.

But Robin D. Lewis, senior environmental scientist with the California Office of Spill Prevention and Response, said in an interview after the forum that although San Diego doesn't have offshore oil rigs — which can be found off the Orange and Los Angeles County coastline as well as off Santa Barbara and other locations — the risk of oil spills exists.

"It's shipping traffic — that's the thing here, shipping and boating," said Lewis. Other concerns include a pipeline along the Interstate 5 corridor that leads to a refinery in the Mission Gorge area and trucks that bring in loads of 8,000 gallons of gasoline on local roads.

Navy ships bring large amounts of fuel into San Diego Bay for ships and aircrafts, and the Navy operates a large tank farm near Pt. Loma.

"They (the Navy) manage and handle an enormous amount of product on a daily basis," said Lewis. Although the Navy has a good safety record and very few spills have occurred over the years, he said, "things happen."

Among the largest oil spills in California history were a blowout at an oil platform off the coast of Santa Barbara in 1969, and a tanker spill near Huntington Beach in 1990, caused when a tanker ship ran over its anchor, spilling 400,000 gallons of oil, Weisberg said.

Tanker spills also occurred in San Francisco Bay in 2007 and 2009, he said.

Statewide, some 1,000 oil spills occur each year on average, said Lewis, with most of them occurring inland.

Lewis' office works closely with the U.S. Coast Guard, which would also be a primary responder to any spill incident on the coast or in the bay.

Michael Salviati, a local Coast Guard representative, said on average, about 5,300 gallons of oil are discharged into San Diego waters each year, mostly from such incidents as a boat sinking or developing a leak in a tank or fuel line.

The Coast Guard's response to an oil spill includes efforts to identify the "responsible party" and get them to initiate cleanup action, Salviati said.

If the responsible party can't be located or is unwilling to act, then the Coast Guard would begin the cleanup using money from a special trust fund and seek to recover costs later.



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